The Prodigal Daughter returned to the Proms last night, having spent most of her working life abroad. Recently admitted to the select rank of nonagenarians, there she was in the audience, a real and physical presence, gracing the Royal Albert Hall for a welcome performance of one of her most striking orchestral works. The lady in question is of course Thea Musgrave. 20 years after its première, Phoenix Rising continues to impress by dint of a very simple characteristic: the music always seems to know exactly where it is going. It never outstays its welcome and the composer skilfully contrasts the moments of dramatic intervention (here given over to horns, timpani and side-drums) with pastoral interludes in which a dazzling array of instrumental colour is exploited. There is a mournful cor anglais, doleful bassoons, ominous horns and trombones, but also an ethereal solo violin and contemplative solo cello, as well as a shimmering luminosity delivered by vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel and marimba together with the antiphonally placed harps.

Richard Farnes © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Richard Farnes
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Giving his debut both with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and at the Proms, Richard Farnes had the full measure of the Apollonian clarity and Dionysiac venom in the piece. The ear was immediately caught by the needle-point sharpness of the opening whiplash chords, and his very fluid and elegant beat emphasised the elasticity in the string writing, often stretched almost to breaking-point. Like all good storytellers, Musgrave takes you on a journey at the end of which you know you have witnessed some remarkably fine landscape.

In any international league table of the world’s favourite choral works, it is unlikely – even in German-speaking countries – that Brahms’ Requiem would come near the top. For a start, it doesn’t have the standard quartet of soloists or those spine-tingling moments when the soprano soars above the stave and the bass underpins the entire harmonic superstructure, making the listener conscious of how far human voices can move apart and still remain knitted together. Nor does it have very many great choral moments, such as the Dies Irae in Verdi’s corresponding work where sheer theatrical terror is unleashed in waves of sound. In addition, the absence of the Latin liturgical text makes an easy passage of identification for choirs and audiences alike almost impossible.

And yet I think that in many ways it offers a great deal more for our secular age than traditional pieces that speak of hellfire, damnation and ultimate redemption. I struggled to connect with it as a much younger man, but the older I get the more it opens its heart to me. Its predominantly slow speeds are an antidote to fast-paced superficial living and its message of consolation resonates with people of all faiths and those of none.

This was the work that sealed the international reputation of the young Johannes Brahms. It was apparent from the way Farnes created a warm, enveloping cushion of sound from the lower strings at the start of the first movement, and also from his expressive shaping of the initial soft entry of the BBC Symphony Chorus, that his priorities would lie in sustaining a legato line and making you aware of how colour, texture and sonority define the sound-world of this particular work. So richness and warmth were signalled in advance. I was less persuaded by his disinclination to vary pace and provide stronger dramatic contrasts. For instance, before the entry of the chorus in the second movement with “Denn alles Fleisch”, the soft-edged timpani (restrained throughout) and horns were kept very much in check. Similarly, the heavy tread of the orchestral textures at the outset of this movement was underplayed.

Thea Musgrave © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Thea Musgrave
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

However, he benefited from two ideally matched soloists, neither of whom indulged in an overly demonstrative projection of the German Lutheran texts. The soprano has relatively little to do, appearing in only the fifth movement. But this is where the message of consolation is writ large, and it needs the kind of fresh-toned, angelic voice of the young South African Golda Schultz to apply sweet balm to the troubled spirit without ever falling into maudlin sentiment. Johan Reuter’s baritone had those honeyed and chocolate-like qualities which softened the ultimately stark realisation of mortality contained in lines such as “Herr, lehre doch mich” at the opening of the third movement.

Farnes devoted a great deal of energy to inspiring his chorus. They certainly sang with commitment, but I found the blend of voices much less appealing, and there was often a worrying imprecision and lack of rhythmic clarity. Above all, when Brahms unfolds his dramatic potential, especially in the sixth movement, the lack of power at “Denn es wird die Posaune schallen” and “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?” was palpable. However, it was good to hear the organ thrillingly deployed at this point as additional underpinning of the sound.